Hack Your Motivation to End the School Year Strong!

Is it lack of motivation or maybe another roadblock? We can strategize the struggle!

What a few weeks it’s been! I’m so sorry I haven’t been on the podcast recently. We’ve had a few hiccups behind the scenes, where life got a little lifey. We are all healthy and doing fine, so that is really the very best I can ask for. Still, I’ve missed our tribe tons and am so happy to reconnect with this week’s episode.

During our podcast break, I heard from several of our tribe members who are sharing their successes and their struggles. I absolutely love being able to geek out and share the love with all of you! Thank you to those of you who are sharing the show with others! You never know who is going to find exactly what they need to hear (or read, on the blog) and get the just-right strategy for their challenge. I feel beyond grateful to be making these connections and this impact with all of you!

When you have some time this week, will you rate and review the show? It helps get this into the ears of others! And, a final nuts-and-bolts note. We are moving our website over, which means some of the links we mention on early shows are not active. I’m so sorry for this! As always, though, we have strategized the struggle. Email me at sarah@sarahkesty.com, and I’ll send you the freebie you’re looking for, plus a few extras! I promise the new site will be worth the growing pains…it will even have more resources for you to use with that awesome kid of yours (or on your own brain, cuz face it, we need these organizing, planning, and brain hacks, too!)

Speaking of your awesome kid and brain hacks…are you wondering lately where your awesome kid’s spirit went? Are they dragging through classes and needing approximately 6,734 reminders to get moving?       

I’ve been in that boat on and off lately, too, which made me step back and strategize this struggle: how do we get motivated during times of low energy or when we’re overwhelmed with to do lists?      

This week, I’m going to teach you why your kid’s brain might not be motivated and how to change the situation. But, first we need to look at motivation itself.            

Motivation feels good.

Motivation is different from forward movement or the energy it takes to start and get through a task. Your kid is likely motivated, but the impediments to move are getting in the way. Learn how to recognize and address them!

It’s where ideas swell and dreams form, where you connect where you are with where you want to be. Neuro-chemically speaking, motivation is heavily related to Dopamine, which makes us want more. Personally, I love to read about brains and teaching and coaching and recipes—I actually enjoy meal planning for the week. But, doing the work after the initial excitement is still sometimes challenging. Even fun things can seem like hard work after the initial motivation fades.

What happens between our idea-generating and our action-production stages?

For one, Dopamine is a fickle friend. Once it’s done its job and gotten you to pay attention to the new and novel, it will dissipate, leaving you wanting more. (The Molecule of More is a great book on this very idea!) The day after you created your awesome next-day, kick-butt schedule, your brain will be familiar with the content and won’t have as much Dopamine at the ready. Translation: it will be harder to focus and feel excited. Think about it this way: motivation can be present and we still won’t get to the goal without strategies to move there. Your child can state all of the ways he or she is going to “do better,” yet fall right back into old, familiar habits—even when you’ve tried every which way to motivate them and they say they are indeed “motivated.”

Here’s where we need to strategize. We can find other ways to get our brains onboard and engaged in our commitments—even when we don’t feel the classical “motivation” to do the tasks. When you’re frustrated that your kid seems “unmotivated,” it might be that you’re actually just worried that he or she isn’t independently getting the work done. They might be super motivated to avoid the work (hello daytime naps and 20-minute pencil sharpening), so motivation itself isn’t lacking. It’s just that your kid’s actions aren’t matching your expectations. And that’s something much easier to strategize to solve!

Some reasons it may look like your kid is lacking motivation and the solutions that go with them:

The task is overwhelming.

Our brains want us to stay alive, and that often means preserving energy.  It takes a lot of energy to get going when you think something will be difficult. Getting going becomes just one more task on the long to-do list, something we have to complete before we even get started. All of us tend to avoid things we think are too much work (hi, taxes, that would be you). Plus, you might be reinforcing this in your child by accident.

Does this sound familiar? Your kid has a big, multi-step project to do. You remind her every evening after school for two weeks, until the night before it’s due. She hasn’t started, and you don’t want her to fail. So, you jump in and break the task into parts for her. You take the lead in parceling out the actions into manageable steps, and viola! Your child is able to complete the project. Waiting to start was rewarded by you giving the help she needed (in this example, breaking it into smaller chunks or actions).

So, when a task seems overwhelming and you worry your child isn’t “motivated” to do it, chances are she just can’t see the steps to get it done.

Here’s how to address it:

  • Ask your child to make and then verbalize or draw out the mental movie of doing the task. Each “scene” can then become a step to do. This helps break down the task into bite-sized pieces.
  • See if you can find a comparable task to use as a to-do list template. If he’s done it before, he can more likely “see” himself doing it again. The reference can help build up the confidence and decrease the overwhelm.

Your kid feels like they won’t be good at it.

Scientists who study behavior change have noted that “perceived ability” to do the new behavior is a requirement to adopt a change. I repeat: You have to believe you can in order to do something. And this sounds like, no duh, but think about it. How many times have we told a kid to “just…do whatever” without checking in about his understanding? And, this is a good spot to remind all of us: sometimes, most times, the crappy behaviors we see (apathy or naughtiness) are just cover ups for our kids feeling like they can’t do something. We’d all rather be “bad” than “dumb.” We’d rather be “aloof” than “vulnerable.”

Check in with your child to uncover feelings of inability or confusion. The “lazy” that you see on the outside may actually reflect a perceived inability to do it. In adults, by contrast, we often seek busy work to take up space instead of actually doing the task we perceive as difficult. Our brains are tricky!

To see if perceived lack of ability is what’s holding your child back, ask questions like:

  • How do you feel about this assignment or task?
  • What do you understand about it? What do you not understand?
  • Tell  me what it would look like to be successful with this?
  • How do you feel about your ability to do this?
  • What help do you think you might need?

Mental energy is spent. They need the rush of adrenaline when up against a deadline to get going.

Sometimes procrastination serves us. First, it games our brains to support us: adrenaline kicks in when we’re up against a deadline, which gives us a boost of energy and focus. I have many students and clients who unconsciously do this to themselves. They put off tasks until the last few hours before a deadline, get tons of last-minute energy, and crank out the work. Success with this strategy often overrides the negative experience of feeling pressured or missing sleep, but I’d caution anyone to not rely too heavily on this. Yes, your brain can kick in last minute, but if your work depends on outside factors (say, getting a presentation board from the store), you may run into pitfalls that you can’t overcome.

The second way procrastination serves us is it provides a built-in excuse for our projected failure. If we think we won’t do well anyway (sometimes subconsciously), then leaving something to the last minute is a great way to set ourselves up for failure—and explain it with a timing excuse, rather than exposing a potential vulnerability. “I could have done better, but I left it to the last minute. I barely spent any time on  it, so…” This line of thinking is deceptive and another way our brains protect our egos and stay safe from change.

 How can you help your kid with procrastinating? Well, start by noticing it in yourself. Think aloud about what you dread and delay and agree to work on improving these habits alongside your child. You can coach and encourage each other! There are also lots of strategies to help with task management, like backwards planning.

But, since this issue seems to persevere mostly unnoticed, I’d say the biggest bang for your effort buck is to first become aware of its presence:

  • What do you notice yourself or your child think or say when you’re about to procrastinate?
  • What types of escaping tasks do you seek to avoid the harder tasks? (busy work, video games, eating, cleaning, socializing…)

Self-Determination ingredients are missing.

Motivation researcher Dr. Chu says there are three ingredients, “like vitamins and minerals” that are vital to motivation: autonomy (I can do it and have choices), competence (I will be good at it and my efforts will pay off), and relatedness (my actions are seen and valued, I contribute to others). 

Let’s apply Dr. Chu’s research to a math practice test. If your child can’t connect the math concepts to present or future life or if he feels like he must complete the assignment rigidly (not able to choose when/where/how he proceeds through the work), then he is missing autonomy. If your child feels like he won’t be able to do well on the test or hasn’t understood the recent materials, then he is missing competence. Or, if your child feels like his math teacher hates him and the kids in class think he’s dumb, then he’s missing relatedness. It’s likely that your child may go through some times where all three ingredients are missing. And, well, that’s when we must ask ourselves if we could actually overcome the obstacles and jump  in too?

Grown ups are really quite good at avoiding things we won’t be good at—or things we think we won’t be good at, or things someone, a long time ago, said we weren’t good at. For my own example, I was born with a neuromuscular condition that deformed my feet and causes chronic pain. Growing up, it looked like I wasn’t motivated to exercise because I often didn’t play sports as heartily or often as my friends. I was missing autonomy (doctors and other helpful adults told me to avoid activities and just “sit it out,” so I saw only limited options), competence (I was also told that my condition would only progress and get worse, no matter what I did), and relatedness (I fell a lot and kids laughed at me. I was for sure the last one picked for teams). Is it any wonder I didn’t even try to work out until my twenties? (Even though my first job was in a gym…the universe has a weird sense of humor).

I just wasn’t motivated until I changed my own motivation ingredients. I had to rethink my autonomy—I did have choices in what activities I tried, and how I tried or adapted them. I could positively impact my own fitness—weight lifting has made my ankles so strong I rarely fall anymore. And, I could connect with others who have challenges and those who don’t by being open about my story and inviting others to connect.

Take some time to think about the motivation ingredients at play for your child. Chances are there are patterns to recognize:

  • Starts off semester strong but fizzles out of steam (probably losing sense of competence—my efforts don’t matter; possibly missing the relatedness—my peers are beyond me or my teacher doesn’t like me).
  • Avoids one or two topics most strongly (probably experiencing a dip in autonomy—I can’t control how I do it, so I won’t do it at all; also possibly missing competence—why try at this point?)

Listen to how your child talks about the schoolwork or particular classes, then compare what he says to the rhetoric of the 3 motivation ingredients (autonomy, competence, relatedness). The words and phrases they choose may shine light on missing ingredients!

The feedback loop is too long.

Our brains are designed to keep us alive. Part of that job involves evaluating if certain actions are beneficial or not.

I touch the hot stove. I experience pain. My brain tags touching hot stoves as not beneficial and keeps the memory as a tool to steer future decisions.

I eat sugar. I experience feeling good. My brain tags eating sugar as beneficial, rewarding me immediately with feel-good brain chemicals and associating sugar with pleasure so that I will seek it more and more.

These are clear and easy examples. But, what happens to our brains when we don’t get the feedback about our efforts? Let’s say you work on a paragraph of an essay that’s due. It’s not yet turned in, so you don’t get the relief from checking it off the list or the reinforcement of a grade or teacher feedback. It’s just that the paragraph is done, and the essay is less not-done. Now what?

Generally speaking, if our brains don’t reinforce somethings as beneficial, then we will likely be less motivated to them…a little “meh” about them, if you will. Our brains want to conserve energy (and it takes a lot of glucose to run these tiny computers in our skulls), so something neither harmful nor beneficial will just be flat to our brains. We’re not rewarded with the “focus juice” in our brains to engage with the tasks again.

Sometimes the “feedback loop,” the time between action and results, is much too long for our kids. The solution? Find a way to track and reward the small steps. It’s as simple as checking off a complete chunk of an assignment, or associating a certain number of tasks completed (yes, even just one task) with a reward. Our brains are a little easy to trick in that way. I have a client who lines up Skittles along her math worksheet. She gets to eat one after she completes each math problem. Her brain loves the sugar reward (sidenote: the sugar boost can also help with focus because it provides quick glucose, but don’t abuse it) so it helps her get as excited as possible to do her math problems.

I’ve never, ever met a kid who chooses to fail. Our kids are motivated to do well. They just sometimes wear a lot of protective layers on top of their vulnerable, motivated selves so we don’t see that they are stuck. This week, choose to believe your child wants to do well. Choose to believe that you get the opportunity to play detective and find out what is hindering their engagement with whatever they’re avoiding. You will learn a lot about your kid and help them solve some problems at the same time.

Finally, it’s time for this week’s pep talk:

Hey, Kid!

I just talked your grown up’s ear off about motivation. And, while I won’t redo the whole thing for you, there are a couple cool things you need to know right now:

First, chances are, you are motivated to do well. You want to get through school, do your chores, even get along with your siblings. Yet, it’s tough to do. Maybe it’s a getting-started issue. I mean, where do you start? How do you know what to do?

Maybe you seem like you’re not motivated on the outside but really you’re just worried you’ll be bad at it anyway. I mean, really, if you think you won’t earn a passing grade no matter what, what’s the point in trying?

Maybe you look a little lazy because you’re plain tired this time of year. You’ve given school all you’ve got, and you need the boost that comes with procrastinating—your brain will deliver focus at the last minute, when you need it most.

Or, maybe you don’t feel like the work is worth it? Maybe you think your teacher doesn’t like you anyway or your grade is too far gone to really “fix” anything?

Whew! Your grown up and I just explored the science behind all of this, but the main idea is here:

There are strategies for every struggle.

You don’t need to beat yourself up because you’re not motivated. Stop it. That’s a waste of time. Instead, take some time to think about what’s keeping you locked out of the task? What do you think or worry about when you think about doing the dreaded thing? If you can clearly see the roadblock, then you can also find a way around it.

It won’t be easy. This time of the school year never is. But, you have what it takes to get moving, yes, even when you don’t think you want to. Picture me in the background, cheering, go kid! Go, kid!

You got this, and you got me and your grown up too.

All my love,

Sarah